Westmont Magazine Learning How Children Learn
Lee Swanson ’69 wants to know why some children have difficulty learning. Is the instruction poor, does the school lack resources, or do students have disabilities?
“We make assumptions about good teaching, but there is no hard science behind them,” he says. “If the federal government is going to invest in making education better, we need hard evidence that identifies the best instructional process. We need answers about how children learn.”
A distinguished professor of educational psychology at UC Riverside, Lee conducts research on learning disabilities. He studies how children think, use their memory, solve problems, and develop intellect. He hopes to understand why learning disabilities occur so he can help all students learn better.
In addition to writing two textbooks, Lee has contributed more than 250 articles to scholarly publications. He edited The Learning Disability Quarterly for 10 years and serves on the review board of 15 journals. In recognition of his significant scholarship, the American Educational Research Association named him the top researcher in special education for 2004.
One of his studies on aging and memory caught the attention of the national media, and CBS News, The New York Times and National Public Radio did stories about his work. Columnist Ellen Goodman also wrote an article on the research.
“Education has been a soft science,” Lee says. “Now there is a push to make it more theoretically driven and laboratory-based. Determining why children learn or don’t learn is a hard call. Dealing with the mind is never straightforward.”
With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Lee compiled a list of literature on learning disabilities published in the last 40 years. His latest project studies the relationship between working memory, mathematics and problem solving in children.
A sociology major, Lee didn’t have a career in mind as a student. He ended up working with emotionally disturbed children and enjoyed it. After earning a master’s degree from CSU Los Angeles, he taught special education and worked as a school psychologist. Then he took a leave of absence to get a Ph.D. and never went back to the classroom. His training includes a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of New Mexico and postdoctoral work in cognitive psychology at UC Los Angeles. Before accepting the endowed chair at UC Riverside in 1991, he taught at the University of British Columbia and the University of Northern Colorado.
Lee’s wife, Cathy Cass Swanson ’69, shares his interest in education and just retired as a fifth-grade teacher. Nate, the youngest of their four children, is studying political science at Westmont and is looking at law school or business. His brother Randy is an attorney and brother Ryan is getting a Ph.D. in history at Georgetown University. Amy, the only daughter, is a surgical technician.
Recruited to run track, Lee set a Westmont record in the 440 that stood until the mid 1980s. He still runs daily and competes in marathons. But the biggest event in his college career was becoming a Christian. “Attending Westmont changed my life,” he says.
“The Lord has been good to me and has put me in places where my personality and skills best match,“ Lee says. “He has put me in a place where I can do some good.”